Democratic loyalists are reacting in predictable ways to the flurry of publicity for a new book about the way Bill and Hillary Clinton got rich via donations from foreign governments to their charity due out in a few weeks. Their instincts tell them to dismiss the allegations in Peter Schweitzer’s book as just the latest manifestation of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get the Clintons, to use Hillary’s memorable phrase from the 1990s. But the attention being paid to the book by the New York Times and not just Fox News is making it hard to do so. It remains to be seen whether Schweitzer’s charges about foreign entities making massive contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative as well as paying enormous speaking fees to the former president in return for favors from the State Department when the former first lady led it will be substantiated. But what cannot be disputed is that the Clintons have behaved in an unprecedented manner. The real question is whether their pushing of the boundaries of ethical behavior will ultimately be seen as disqualifying or if, instead, be disregarded as just one more set of rules that the once and future first family can ignore with impunity.
On its face, the reports about Schweitzer’s book appear to indicate that what he has done is merely to collate a vast array of material about the Clintons, their charity, and U.S. foreign policy, and to attempt to connect the dots between subjects that Bill and Hillary would like very much for us to keep separate. In response, the Clinton machine is trotting out the gang of usual suspects to put it down as politicized reporting that unfairly attempts to stigmatize the work of a noble charity as well as to besmirch Hillary’s record at the State Department.
Yet however much they huff and puff about the effrontery of those who dare to question the Clintons’ behavior, they can’t entirely squelch concerns about the way the couple has pushed the conventional boundaries of ethical political behavior in ways that are completely unprecedented in American political history. Though this is being viewed as a purely political question, there’s more here than just an opportunity for conservatives and Republicans to throw dirt at the putative 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. Even if you admired the previous Clinton presidency and think Hillary would make an admirable successor to Barack Obama, the facts about the Clinton charity and the way it has solicited donations give even liberals a queasy feeling about the manner in which has operated. More than that, there is simply no previous example of a former president and his family creating such an entity that is dependent in part on foreign riches while one of its principals has been actively conducting American foreign policy and preparing for a future presidential run.
It must be conceded that just because there has never been anything like the Clinton power couple before doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. But in an era when conflicts of interest involving public officials are often justifications for lengthy and costly investigations–and possible prosecution if authorities think they can substantiate a link, however circumstantial, between official behavior and actions from donors that benefit an official and/or his or her family–the most favorable way of characterizing the Clintons’ behavior is to say that it is very fishy. Yet we should probably take it as a given that the Clintons and their lawyers are likely so savvy about how to push the envelope on ethics that they have been careful to avoid breaking any laws or at least that they have done so in ways that will make it difficult, if not impossible for them to be prosecuted.
It is also true that former President Clinton’s conduct seems very much in line with the kind of activity that nowadays we treat as normal from former members of the House and Senate who routinely cash out on their political careers after retirement or defeat at the polls by becoming lobbyists, consultants, or otherwise profiting from their status as former power brokers. Past presidents have often been involved in charity work, though never on the scale of the Clinton Global Initiative before. But even if other former chief executives have made money speaking, those paying them exorbitant honorariums were never before doing so while a presidential spouse was in power or planning to get it, raising issues of quid pro quo transactions that have never before been lodged before against one of our former presidents and their families.
Are the American people are really comfortable with the idea of a former president profiting from the largesse lavished upon him and the charity he runs from foreign sources while his wife presides over the State Department while biding her time before running for president? Clinton’s defenders are anxious that we think it no big deal while their antagonists seem to think that merely pointing out what is already on the record about their behavior is enough to disqualify Hillary from consideration in 2016. But what we don’t know is which of these two possible responses characterizes the thinking of the electorate.
It is possible that just as Bill Clinton broke new ground in violating norms about personal behavior in the White House without forfeiting the support of many, if not most Americans, so, too, the tale of the “Clinton Cash” will similarly be forgiven, if not altogether ignored by enough Americans to ensure their return to the White House. But just as there is no precedent for their behavior and the questions they have raised about the intersection of policy, charity, and speeches for profit, there is also none that can give us an answer to this question about how such hijinks influence presidential elections. All we know is that the Clinton way of doing charity work for profit and power has raised questions about Hillary’s candidacy and her party in ways that not even the sagest pundits can be sure about the people’s response to this mess.